Warning. Joined-Up Learning Ahead

I’ve just been reading about a really interesting experiment in Kirn Primary School in Dunoon on the west coast of Scotland. Faced with a reducing number of full-time staff, supplemented by an increasing number of part-time teachers who had been re-deployed from other schools with falling roles, the headteacher decided to play to the strengths of his team, while providing stability and continuity to the learners. An early years and first level ‘department’ was created for P1 – P4, staffed by full-timers, where the nurture and support so critical for youngsters in the early stages of schooling would not be compromised. From P5 – P7, however, the learning would take place in what are described as ‘subjects’, with part-time teachers offering specialist topics to each of the classes in turn, according to their own (that is, the teacher’s) strengths and interests.

The gamble seems to be paying off. One of those part-time teachers, who specialises in music and RME, describes how she and the children worked on a school production called The Peace Child, where they had to pull together all the aspects of theatrical production while exploring the theme of conflict resolution, and where they now had ‘time and space to reflect on their learning’. The six-week block of time allowed them a greater element of personal choice, and the opportunity to explore in greater depth aspects of the topic which had a special appeal. A welcome by-product of the new way of working has been an increase in the amount of outdoor education offered to the pupils  – surely a welcome development at a time when Play England reports that 42% of children in England and Wales have never made a daisy chain and 32% have never climbed a tree; there’s no reason to believe that the figures for Scotland would be very much healthier.

One particularly interesting – and slightly curious – aspect of this story for me is that the headteacher himself describes the six-week blocks which teachers offer as ‘subjects’, causing the TESS, where the story was reported this week, to wonder:

“But the solution does seem to go against the grain of recent experience, where separate departments in the secondary school, as well as rigid timetables, are making the new curriculum harder to implement there.

It also seems contrary to conventional wisdom that the primary-secondary transition is problematic for pupils, because one teacher and a close relationship become many teachers, who flit in and out of their lives. Surely forcing that transition earlier can’t be an improvement?”

The reason for this concern and confusion, in my opinion, is in the terminology. Potentially, what Kirn seems to be offering here is successful project-based learning, the very antithesis of learning in ‘subjects’. The learners are engaged in one topic at a time,  over a relatively short period of time, with one teacher, not many. In other words, it is nothing like a secondary model. Other schools have experimented with versions of the ‘rich tasks’ approach with mixed results, but this is one experiment which should definitely be worth watching.

This is the Common Craft team’s take on Project Based Learning:

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No More Curriculum for Excellence?

Photo by Cristobal Cobo Romani

In a recent interview for the TESS, Professor Tom Devine, Scotland’s pre-eminent historian, was discussing the recent upsurge in interest in Scottish history, and linking it to the newly-found confidence of the Scottish people in electing a majority SNP government. In education, this aspiration is also reflected, he claimed, in the term ‘Curriculum for Excellence’, before  warning – and revealing the self-doubt of his own and previous generations – that ‘if it doesn’t turn out to be excellent…then it could be a contradiction in terms.’

While I am about to agree with him in one respect, and argue that it’s time for the term to be dropped, I would contend that if the ‘it’ in Professor Devine’s statement refers to the curriculum frameworks, or to the values, purposes and principles of the new curriculum, or even to the pedagogical approaches underpinning the new philosophy, then it could be argued that ‘it’ is already excellent. I have certainly yet to hear any strong arguments against, or credible alternatives to, any of the above, and the number of endorsements from leading educational figures, both in the UK and in other parts of the world, would appear to reinforce that view.

Problems arise when the expectation is that the curriculum, rather than people, will deliver excellence, or an excellent experience for learners. This manifests itself most clearly for example when a local authority claims, as one does elsewhere in the same edition of the Times Ed that smaller schools will be unable to deliver ‘it’. Have they ever heard of virtual social networks?  Is the word Glow ringing any bells, for example?

However, another issue, and one which is easily solved, is when a name persists beyond its natural usefuleness. I remember for example, after one of the revisions of Higher English when, to avoid confusion, the new Higher was labelled ‘Higher Still’. Years later, when the revisions were well established and there was no alternative, it was still common for people to refer to the fact that they were ‘doing Higher Still’, a term which by then had become redundant. The danger is that the longer the name persists, the easier it is for the sceptics and the cynics to convince themselves that opting out is a viable option.

Curriculum for Excellence is here. It is not the future, but the present. The original authors were right in using the term to reflect the aspirational nature of the curriculum, but perhaps now it is time to move on and talk simply about ‘the Scottish Curriculum’.  I, for one, will be trying to follow my own advice in the new academic session.